Annenberg Radio

The 1871 Chinese Massacre and why ‘their lives didn’t matter then’

The details behind the L.A. Chinese Massacre and why you might not have heard of it

Dr. Gay Yuen: This is American history, this is California history, this is local history.

That was Dr. Gay Yuen—a lifelong member of LA Chinatown and current board chair of the Friends of the Chinese American Museum here in LA.

This week marked the 150th anniversary of the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and Dr. Yuen is one of the few people who even know about this huge historical event. The massacre was one of the deadliest lynching’s in LA history with around 18 known victims.

Before we can start talking about how this massacre has been neglected in our curriculum, we need to know: What exactly happened?

It’s 1871. Los Angeles is not the bustling city it is today. Back then, it stood with a population of 6000 people, about 200 of which were Chinese immigrant workers. A gun fight broke out between two rival Chinese clans. Two white men were shot and killed in the crossfire.

A single gunshot was what led to the lynching’s.

A mob of 500 descended upon the community and attacked, shot, and hung any Chinese person in sight. Those responsible for the lynching were found guilty of manslaughter but all of the convictions were eventually overturned.

To this day, we know of around 18 individuals who died during this massacre. This was over 10% of the small Chinese population of a growing Los Angeles at the time. There was a small plaque installed in the ground 20 years ago in front the Chinese American Museum but why is the history not taught in classrooms?

Dr. Gay Yuen: I went to UCLA as an undergraduate. I went to Cal State L.A.. And, you know as a graduate, master’s degree student. And I went to USC as a doctoral student. Until I joined the museum, I did not know about the Chinese-American massacre.

When we think of a U.S. history class, the first things that come to mind are the victories—the American Revolution, the Civil War, WW2—and these dark chapters of history like the 1871 Chinese Massacre barely scratch the surface in any classroom.

Hao Huang: It’s been ignored, partly because the people who are killed just never counted. They were. They didn’t count because of race. They didn’t count because they weren’t considered important in the social hierarchy. We have to acknowledge the people who died who are real human beings are just like you and me. I mean their lives, which didn’t matter. That should matter now. And the only way those lives can matter is if we do, if we make events, if we bring it to the attention of other people in terms of saying, this is what happened and we have to learn to care about this. This isn’t just some sort of, you know, the long, distant history, which is just irrelevant. But it’s something that matters because this is about what happened to other human beings.

That was Hao Huang, a professor at Scripps and creator of the podcast “Blood on Gold Mountain,” an audio retelling of the massacre.

This is part of a pattern of overlooking so much of Asian American history, however, there are now some efforts to recognize the traumas of America’s past. California has just added a new ethnic studies requirement for high school graduation. Just this week, the city of Los Angeles has committed $250,000 dollars to install a more visible memorial to the massacre and has issued a “Request for Ideas.”

Hao Huang: When something becomes Asian-American history, or Chinese-American history, it is often shunted to the side, and it does not count as an American history that we all share. That didn’t just happen to the other or the exotic. This happened to many Americans.

Asian America is an integral thread in the American fabric but is often forgotten or overlooked. Our histories are American histories and though there have been efforts to commemorate our presence, 150 years after the massacre, the Asian American community still too often faces vitriol and discrimination.